Summer marks the start of longer days and shorter lengths and more ambiguity in the realm of fashion. It’s somewhere said that if it doesn’t look ridiculous on a beach, it probably isn’t fashionable. This may be true, but summer tends to blur those lines as pants give way to shorts and shoes give way to sandals. Meanwhile, magazines in the checkout line, whose covers are never examples of restraint, dedicate themselves with almost evangelical urgency to helping women achieve the waifish “beach body.” If we were to include the niche market of Men’s Health we could say that men and women alike are beckoned every summer to a fresh level of superficiality in their own self-awareness.
Judging from the photos that conservative websites like the Weather Channel annually dig up, summer seems to provoke nostalgia or at least historical curiosity for older modes and orders in the short history of modern swimwear. Everyone has some familiarity with the Victorian bathing machines, the voluminous costumes for women, the full tops for men, and even the sex-segregated beaches that were the norm not more than a century ago. And so history raises questions for our collective consciousness of evolving standards of decency, of objectification, and of that older word, modesty.
The sexual revolution, some will say, has culminated not in sexual power but in loss of dignity. Even as women have joined men in the workplace, in the academy, and on the athletic field, their hemlines have risen, their necklines have plunged, and hats, sleeves, and gloves have disappeared. Simultaneously we have witnessed the creation of Playboy, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and lately the explosion of an online pornography industry, none of which is a standard-bearer for female dignity. Playgirl, David Beckham ads, and a new literature challenging the conventional and scientific wisdom of female attraction notwithstanding, women seem to have lost dignity even as they have gained power.
Others will say that in the past century we have overcome prudish, Victorian norms in favor of increased freedom and appreciation of the body. Indeed, women seem to have the least liberty in those parts of the world where they are covered by the most clothing, whether it is in Hasidic Brooklyn, Paris, or of course, the Middle East. Women seem to unfairly bear the onus of preventing sexual indiscretions, and their clothing appears symbolic of top-down male domination. Clashes across Europe between liberals and growing communities of Islamic immigrants remind us that when it comes to rights, clothing matters.
The temptation for some, then, is to set down that absolute standard somewhere between burqa and topless, between home-schooled and Jersey Shore, between Amish and “naturist.” Designers, like Jessica Rey, inevitably have to decide where the line will be drawn, and that kind of brave effort, which will often seem counter-cultural and anachronistic, must be commended. But drawing the hard line is a task akin to that of the conservative in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, who forever wishes to return to some precise point in history when all was well with the world. For others, the standard is living and endlessly subjective. The definition is, as the Supreme Court has said with respect to pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
Though plagued by historical and cultural relativity, the received wisdom of most of human history is that modesty matters. Inviting sexual advances from anyone and everyone, it was thought, has deleterious consequences for human relationships. It wasn’t as if they believed that men have no self-control, but they knew that men were more than disembodied minds. Embodied human beings have desires and longings, and not all of them should be encouraged. In fact, they erected elaborate social institutions to properly channel these longings. It was thought that commitment had to precede intimacy, and modesty served as a buttress for that goal.
Unfortunately, cultural manifestations of modesty vary considerably. In some places, ankles and eyes turn heads. In others, bare knees, heads, and shoulders. At the extreme, indigenous tribes provide the titillating stuff of National Geographic magazines. But excepting for the moment naturists, primitive tribesmen, and Atlantic writers as outliers, let’s ponder clothing in the ages before the 19th century beach costume.
What of those Dionysian Greeks with their au naturel Olympics, in-the-buff statuary, and proto-bikini? What of their Roman counterparts, who to some Romans’ dismay, copied everything sensual from the Greeks? We shouldn’t pretend that all was well and good and pure in those days. And yet, for the Ancients, the human and political ideal was still a live question, one that certainly had a physical dimension but that also extended up a kind of ladder from the material world to an immaterial world of ever truer and more real things. At its best, the beauty of the human form was a starting place for a conversation about the noble and good human being and ultimately about the one true, good, and beautiful thing.
Though it seems strange to us given our pornography-saturated world, they believed that in the proper context the body could be appreciated without vulgar implications. The patrons of the Italian Renaissance were appropriating Greek modes of thought when they commissioned nudes from the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael. The Church itself commissioned many of them, later covered them, and in the restorations presided over by the Philosopher-Pope, John Paul II, uncovered them again.
But for the ordinary flesh-and-blood citizens of ancient world, the dress was not quite so free. Their dress-like robes were not designed for revealing every curve and crevice of the human form. What of the ancient bikini? Not content with taking turns around the garden, classical women seem to have worn an antecedent of the bikini as a form of activewear, but it also seems that baths and other such activities were sex-segregated. Women were excluded both as athletes and spectators from the nude Olympics. Indeed, men and women spent much of their lives in separate spheres. This was true throughout the ancient world. Greek men may have exercised naked, and Jesus’ disciples may have fished naked; but in regular public settings women wore full-length clothing and often covered their heads. In fact, head-coverings were de rigeur in the Ancient Near East. Thus, when the “woman of the city” wipes the feet of Jesus with her hair, it is scandalous not only because of who she is but because the very act of letting down her hair before a stranger is an act of such intimacy that those present would have recoiled at the indecency of it.
Setting aside the issue of sex-segregation, the wisdom of the Ancients reminds us that modesty, whatever it is, is contextual. Though its purpose remains the same, it, like all virtues, varies with time and place and according to the beliefs and predispositions of a particular people. Even within a particular place, modesty manifests itself differently in different circumstances. What may be appropriate on a fishing boat or an athletic field is not appropriate in other settings. Flip-flops are unremarkable at the beach but raise an eyebrow at the White House. Shorts are fitting at a picnic but less so before the Supreme Court. Indeed, when the justices want to project dignity, they revert to dresses. Furthermore, in the days before come-as-you-are was a dress, “Sunday Best” meant more than niceness of fabric.
As the ancient athlete who strips off everything that encumbers him makes so vivid, the activity must be held in balance with the task. Accepting this, we see that there is an appropriateness to the sports-bra-clad jogger, but perhaps we can have a conversation about why modern Olympic men and women are clothed so differently. We can acknowledge that dance, like running, by its nature celebrates the human form and requires clothing that allows a full range of motion, but perhaps we can have a conversation about Janet Jackson’s halftime performance, one that includes not only the physical indecency, but also what is perhaps more insidious, the content of her music. Whatever your thoughts about breastfeeding in the classroom, we can all agree that it’s different than flashing viewers everywhere.
Woody Allen is right. We can’t go back to a former age, and there’s something reprehensible about the person who completely rejects the present. However, perspective is helpful. We can see that Victorian England had its problems. Among them was a Platonist or Enlightened anthropology that opposed the good, rational mind to the bad, desirous body. At its worst, it supposed that if we cover and otherwise ignore the body we can by force of will suppress our desires. But Victorians were right to see that human beings are more than a locus of drives and instincts and that thoughtlessly acting on them often leads to bad consequences. They were right to see that there’s something wrong with our bodies. Jane Austen portrays this, but she’s more than Victorian when she shows us that thick, shared practices can channel desires into happy, fulfilling marriages.
To paint in broad strokes, the Ancients may have underappreciated our defects in exalting the unadorned body. But they were right to see that there’s something good and beautiful about the body, and that it, when viewed in the right context and by the better angels of our nature, can lift our gazes toward heaven. It’s our task, then, to navigate the course between the Scylla and Charybdis of the aesthete and the moralist, and so celebrate the human form even as we remember that it can distract us from what lies beyond.